The difference between Carbohydrates, fats and protein

a bowl of cereal and fruit

Carbohydrates, fats, and protein are key nutrients that provide energy as well as other benefits to our bodies. So, what are the main differences between protein, carbs, and fats and why are they each important?

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for physical activity and should be eaten in moderation because they can have a negative effect on your weight if you consume too many.

Fats help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, K. They also play an important role in maintaining healthy skin and hair.

Protein helps repair muscles after exercise so it is essential for athletes who want to maintain their muscle mass.

With each nutrient being significantly different to the other, in this post, we will take a look at 4 major differences.

There are some differences between the three:

  1. Food sources
  2. The amount of energy they provide
  3. The way they are digested
  4. The way they affect weight loss

Let’s get started.

What are carbohydrates, fats, and protein and how are they different?

Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are the three main macronutrients that make up our diet.

Whenever you consume any food, you will be consuming a mixture of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. All foods contain a mixture of these nutrients, but they will categorised into one or the other based on the amount of all. For instance, you can’t eat potatoes and expect to consume carbs only, you will also consume fats and proteins, just in smaller quantities. However, potatoes will fall into the category of carbohydrates simply because they contain more carbohydrates than any other macro-nutrient. The same principle applies to all other foods.

What’s important to understand about macronutrients is that they all offer a different set of vitamins and minerals. Since each vitamin and mineral support different biochemical reactions, they are important for our health and overall wellbeing. Hence, why it is important to also consume a balance of each macronutrient in order for our body to function properly.

In a moment, you’re going to learn more about each macronutrient individually and the key differences between protein, fats and carbohydrates.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the macronutrients that we need to consume on a daily basis. They are the body’s main source of energy. The brain, muscles, and other organs all need a constant supply of carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates come in three types: starches, sugars, and fibre.

  • Starches, also known as complex carbs, can be found in foods like sweet potatoes, couscous, quinoa, wholewheat pasta
  • Sugars, also known as simple sugars or refined sugars, can be found in foods like fruit, cookies, snacks, and table sugar.
  • Fibre is found mainly in whole grains such as wheat bread or brown rice.

What are carbohydrates good for?

Carbohydrates are a rich source of vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, and B vitamins. This makes them great for:

  • Proper muscle functioning and contraction
  • Healthy bones and teeth
  • Delivering adequate oxygen around the body
  • High-quality energy

What do carbohydrates do within the body?

Over the last number of years, carbohydrates have received a bad rep due to misleading information and a number of myths. So, let’s dig into the core of carbohydrates: their digestion.

When you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugars, scientifically known as monosaccharides or glucose. The sugar broken down circulates in the blood around the body raising blood sugar levels. In response to rising blood sugar levels, the body signals beta cells to release insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is responsible for regulating your blood sugar level.

Insulin helps glucose enter body tissues like muscles and organs so they can provide energy to be used for any biochemical reactions as well as physical activities. The purpose of insulin is to keep the blood sugar level within the normal between-meal range (70 mg/dL to 120 mg/dL).

When insulin helps glucose enter the body’s cells and tissues, your blood glucose level returns to a normal range that’s healthy. When blood sugar level falls too low, another hormone is released to break down tissues and cells to return the blood sugar level to normal ranges again.

This is where of carbohydrates causing fat gain myth was born. You will learn more about carbohydrates and their effects on weight loss next.

How do carbohydrates affect weight loss?

During digestion, carbohydrates release insulin to regulate your blood sugar level by pushing glucose into the body’s cells and tissues to supply energy.

These sugars are also the main and preferable sources of energy. This means that when you exercise, your body will use these sugars for energy before it can begin to tap into your body’s fat stores.

This means that for the first 15-30 mins, your body will be burning those sugars before you begin to lose body fat. So, this is one way that carbohydrates affect weight loss.

Furthermore, if you consistently consume too many added sugars, your blood sugar level can remain elevated for prolonged periods of time.

As a result, your tissues can become insulin resistant. This means that they will stop responding to insulin leading to a build-up of sugars. The body will then start to signal the brain that all the glucose needs to be stored in fat stores instead.

However, this only occurs when you consume too much sugar too often.

Amount of energy provided by carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per 1 gram of carbohydrates.

What are fats?

Fats, like carbs, have received a bad rep over the years but they are actually essential for our health and overall wellbeing.

There are different types of fats:

  • Saturated fats are unhealthy and these can be found in things like butter, certain oils, and cheese
  • Unsaturated fats which are also subdivided into polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are healthy fats found in things like avocadoes, eggs, and certain oils
  • Trans fats which mostly come from processed foods and are fairly dangerous for our health as they increase blood pressure levels and bad cholesterol

The main purpose of fats is to regulate appetite, hormones and deliver fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K into tissues that need them.

Fats provide the most amount of energy out of all the macronutrients, 9 calories per 1 gram of fat. Since they are so calorie-dense, take caution in terms of your daily calories.

Healthy food choices include:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocadoes
  • Eggs
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Flaxseed oil and olive oil

Digestion of fats

Fats are broken down into essential fatty acids. These fatty acids are important for a number of body functions including:

  • Supply energy
  • Brain function
  • Regulation of cholesterol
  • Transportation of vitamins A, D, E, and K

These functions of fatty acids are only available from healthy food choices, and not from trans fatty acids or saturated fats. These unhealthy fats increase bad cholesterol levels which is a major factor of heart disease. Be sure to limit saturated fats and completely avoid trans fats.

Trans fats are artificial fats that are made from unsaturated fats and with chemical processing, they are converted into saturated fats. The processing that they go through keeps them preserved for prolonged periods of time.

The effects of fats on weight loss

Our ability to gain weight or regulate our appetite is controlled by a number of hormones. Consuming fats will not automatically make fat accumulate in the body. One of the hormones involved in regulating our weight and appetite is insulin, and insulin is released as a result of consuming carbohydrates and elevated blood sugar levels.

The only way that fats can hinder weight loss is due to the number of calories that they provide. With them being so calorie-dense (9 calories per gram), it is easy to consume too many calories. So, to avoid this, make sure to watch how much you eat.

How much fats should you eat?

Your total fat intake should be limited to 30-35% of your total calories. Of that 35%, 11% can come from saturated fats.

What are proteins?

Proteins are organic compounds made from 20 amino acids. There are 12 amino acids that are created within your body whilst the other 8 are obtained from your diet.

Proteins are the building blocks of our soft and hard tissues. They are involved in a number of body functions like strengthening hair, skin, and nails as well as building muscle and supporting their recovery. In addition, they are also important for joints and connective tissues as well as for the immune system.

As the body’s building blocks, foods rich in proteins contain nutrients like B vitamins, zinc, iron, vitamin E, and fibre. Protein sources include meats, seafood, nuts, legumes, some dairy products, and eggs.

If you are a regular exerciser, it’s so important that you consume enough proteins, especially if your goal is to build muscle. You can learn more about sports and exercise nutrition using the Nutrition2change online course.

Digestion of proteins.

During digestion, proteins are broken down into constituent amino acids which can be used for:

  • Energy
  • Regulating blood sugar
  • Appetite
  • Structural support for hair, nails, skin, and bones
  • To build muscle

How much energy do proteins provide?

Proteins provide 4 calories per 1 gram of protein.

How do proteins affect weight loss?

High protein diets help maintain muscle mass which aids in shedding fat as it speeds up your metabolism. Muscles are thermogenic which means that they generate heat within the body. This heat helps to burn more calories at rest.

The more muscle you have the more calories you will burn at rest. Therefore, when you decide to go on a diet you will be able to create a greater caloric deficit.

Summary

The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and protein. Carbohydrates can come in the form of sugars or starches. Protein is a building block for muscle growth and tissue repair while fat has been shown to be important in maintaining cell membranes, insulating organs from injury, and aiding in digestion.

These nutrients also have different levels of calories per gram – carbs 4 cals/g, proteins 4-5 cal/g, fats 9 cal/g — which means that they should be eaten at specific amounts depending on your goals (i.e., weight loss).

Learn how to master your macronutrients with the Nutrition2change Meal Planning masterclass: How to build a healthy diet online course.

If you’ve enjoyed our post today about the differences between fats, carbohydrates and protein then make sure to sign up to our newsletter below and download 20 FREE nutrition and exercise tips as well as 6 fat loss recipes. Sign up below to download.

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References

Forbesnutritionalconsulting.com. (2019). Forbes Nutrition – Customized nutrition counselling and education. [online] Available at: http://www.forbesnutritionalconsulting.com/fat_pro_carbs.html [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

Myhealth.alberta.ca. (2018). Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, and Blood Sugar. [online] Available at: https://myhealth.alberta.ca/health/tests-treatments/Pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=uq1238abc& [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

Sawicka, P. (2019). All about the Carbs! – Nutrition2Change. [online] Nutrition2Change. Available at: https://nutrition2change.com/macronutrients-carbohydrates/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

Sawicka, P. (2019). Do fats make you fat? – Nutrition2Change. [online] Nutrition2Change. Available at: https://nutrition2change.com/do-fats-make-you-fat/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

Sawicka, P. (2019). Do proteins only grow muscle? – Nutrition2Change. [online] Nutrition2Change. Available at: https://nutrition2change.com/do-proteins-only-grow-muscles/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

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